08 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I have always been a reader who loves facts. Sure, I have read my share of fiction and many of the good fiction writers make a laudable effort to get their facts straight. The reasons for my preference have a lot to do with personal temperament, reading philosophy and, simply, what interests me.

You might assume that most children read fiction, and you would be correct. Most children see nonfiction as "homework," and nothing takes the joy out of reading like that word. Nonfiction represents the assignment to report on an historical figure, or to explain global warming, or to tell why the Declaration of Independence was important. Fiction represents children doing cheeky stuff, having grand adventures, and laughing their heads off. To your kids, nonfiction is spinach, and fiction is chocolate cupcakes. Small wonder they prefer the cupcakes.

I am here to tell you that both have their place. Oh, sure, we could eat vegetables (read nonfiction) all the time and it would be so good for us. No cavities, no empty calories, no goofy, mindless stories. Ugh. What a dreadful way to live. As a kid, I thought dinners with dessert were a perfectly civilized custom. In fact, sometimes one eats steamed brussels sprouts primarily to get to the chocolate cupcakes.

Ok, now I'm hungry. Anyway. The point is that for a child to be intellectually well-rounded they should be encouraged to have some of both. Fiction can be very informative, but it can only go so far. Nonfiction can (oh, yes it can!) be engaging, but it is not usually a laugh a minute. So then the problem becomes one of how to get them to eat their broccoli, er, ah... read nonfiction and like it. Only the most inspired teachers can serve up fact-based literature and make it palatable. We all had those teachers who made the inquisition come alive, but did we have teachers who did the same for biology? (I did. His name was Mr. Belzeski and he taught at McNichol Middle School in Florida. I was a mid-term transfer and he made me enthralled with biology, no mean feat. He made nonfiction come alive and I love him still. Hats off to you Mr. B, wherever you are!)

Teachers can have a big impact on a child's love of facts, but it's a taste which must be nurtured at home. If parents are reading dime novels or technical manuals all the time, their children will have the same polar view of reading: throw-away pulp fiction or sleep-inducing "required reading." If, on the other hand, they set up the telescope with mom and dad, and look at the stars, and if mom and dad suggest/provide some well-written guides and stories about the stars and constellations, well, you can see that this provides a whole different insight into the world of facts. If dinner table discussions include current events, children will eventually develop a curiosity about them. If they see illustrated histories lying on the end table, they will eventually pick them up. See how easy this is?

Most importantly, nonfiction works must not be used as a club to beat them. "Susie, I want you to read this treatise on the War of the Roses, and write a six page summary or no dinner!" Or, "Instead of your favorite TV program tonight, how about a little Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire?" Allow your children to develop their own questions about the world and be on hand with the appropriate (and well thought out) books on their topic. Even if it's The World's Scariest Spiders, or Sixteen Bugs That Live on Your Face. (Relax, I just made those up. I think.)

Don't fret if they prefer Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I am willing to bet that there will be plenty of other future PhDs who will have read it too.

After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

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